DHS grants help save the lives of firefighters


By Steve Kerber

Over the past 30 years, despite advances in technology, the rate of firefighter deaths inside structures have continually risen. It is believed that a significant contributing factor is the lack of fire-behavior research supporting the knowledge of the fire service. While firefighting techniques have been passed down through generations, evidence-based research is vital to save lives and keep pace with the evolving fire environment.

One of the main ways this research is funded is through federal grants, which provide crucial support to organizations that research fires. In order to investigate how a blaze behaves, researchers locate abandoned buildings or build full-size structures to simulate how fires would be fought in real-life situations. During these simulations, firefighters are on the scene to provide real-time feedback during these simulations in order to help ensure accuracy. After the research has been written and published, it is made available to firefighters around the globe through online links and video trainings.

In a recently funded U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) project, researchers determined that, in a compromised building, lightweight materials created a greater risk of structural failure in a shorter amount of time. This meant floors built from this material collapsed quicker than expected, sometimes causing catastrophic injuries to firefighters. 

With the help of this DHS grant, UL performed controlled burns in simulated basements constructed of many different materials commonly used in today’s homes. Researchers found how these materials affect firefighting best practices. This study is an excellent example of how research can help educate firefighters on how to identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

DHS-funded studies have not only helped save the lives of firefighters, but have also had profound implications for citizens. Through a series of grant-funded studies, researchers found that modern homes are at a greater risk of an inferno. Larger rooms, open-floor plans, increased fuel loads and new construction materials all lead to one conclusion: today’s homes burn up to eight times faster than older ones. In one research project, this was put to the ultimate test.

Three modern rooms, furnished with engineered synthetic materials were tested against three legacy rooms, supplied with only natural materials. The experiment revealed that synthetic materials in modern homes burned hotter and faster than legacy homes. In fact, The National Institute of Standards Technology estimates that 30 years ago, a fire victim had about 14 minutes to escape a burning structure. Today, they typically have only three minutes. This study emphasized the importance of smoke alarms and residential sprinkler systems. Researchers solidified other recommendations, such as closing a door between a victim and the fire and calling for help when trapped by a blaze.

These studies are crucial to the future of firefighting. By partnering with fire departments, researchers can help improve tactics, provide evidence-based research to the firefighting community and, most importantly, save firefighter lives across the globe.

Steve Kerber is the research director of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute. He has led fire service research and education in the areas of ventilation, structural collapse and fire dynamics. Kerber is a 13-year veteran of the fire service, with most of his service at the College Park Fire Department in Prince George’s County, Md., where he served at ranks up through deputy chief. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fire protection engineering from the University of Maryland and is currently working on his doctorate degree in Risk Management and Safety Engineering from Lund University in Sweden. Kerber has also been appointed to the rank of Honorary Battalion Chief by the New York Fire Department and was named the 2014 International Society of Fire Service Instructors and Fire Engineering Magazine Instructor of the Year.


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